How’s the job market looking these days?

It’s been better and it’s been worse. Unemployment is holding at about 7.8 percent. Employment growth is stuck at a slower pace than in any recovery in the past half-century. And although job growth looks like it may be on the upswing, studies find that we don’t just have a jobs deficit—we have a “good jobs” deficit. During the downturn, the disappearance of midwage, midskill jobs was just part of a longer-term trend that some refer to as a “hollowing out” of the work force, accelerated by government layoffs.

Lower-wage occupations, with median hourly wages of about $8-$14, accounted for 21 percent of job losses during the downturn. Since employment started expanding, they have accounted for 58 percent of all job growth.

Those aren’t encouraging statistics for people who are looking for work.

Unfortunately, it’s just one measurement that points to lower wages. Another indicator is decreasing membership in labor unions. Last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported sharp declines in the nation’s labor union membership.

The union membership rate fell from 11.8 percent to 11.3 percent of all workers, the lowest level since the 1930s. Total membership fell by about 400,000 workers to 14.4 million. More than half the loss — about 234,000 — came from government workers including teachers, firefighters and public administrators. Unions have steadily lost members since their peak in the 1950s, when about one of every three workers was in a union. By 1983, roughly 20 percent of American workers were union members.

This contraction indicates that even Americans with jobs are working for lower pay and without a voice. Among full-time wage and salary workers, union members in 2012 had median weekly earnings of $943, while those who were not union members earned $742.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, almost 30% of American workers are expected to hold low-wage jobs – defined as earnings at or below the poverty line to support a family of four – in 2020. This number will remain virtually unchanged from 2010.

So on whole, being in a union means a bigger paycheck. But what about the great equalizer…education?

Well, the unemployment rate for new college graduates is down significantly from last year, continuing a decrease in unemployment for this group, according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But even with employment looking up, something else has seen a steep incline: student debt. Two-thirds of American college graduates left school last year with student loan debt hanging over their heads and the average amount they owed was $26,600, up 5 percent from the previous year. They also walked into a tough job market that was only marginally more friendly than in 2010. According to the Institute for College Access and Success, “the unemployment rate for young college graduates in 2011 remained high at 8.8 percent, a slight decrease from 2010, which saw the highest annual rate on record for this group (9.1 percent).”

Is college worth it?

Unequivocally, YES.

And recent graduates shouldn’t be too discouraged. While they still face a tough job market, those lucky few grads who find jobs in their field can expect to earn a higher starting salary than their predecessors did. Salaries for class of 2012 college grads are up 3.4% over the pay of those who graduated a year earlier, according to a survey released in early January. The survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers showed the average salary of new grads at $44,455. It was the best year-over-year rise in starting salary since the class of 2008. The salary averages are only for those graduates who found jobs in their fields of study, not for those who have taken any job.

It might be tough to land a job fresh out of school, but over the long-term, that degree pays off. A college graduate earns about $20,000 more than a high school graduate, and the unemployment rate for college graduates was just 2.2 percent last year, half the rate for high school graduates, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Mellody is President of Ariel Investments, a Chicago-based money management firm that serves individual investors and retirement plans through its no-load mutual funds and separate accounts.  In addition to being the featured consumer finance expert for Money Mondays, she is also a regular columnist for Black Enterprise magazine.

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